Kairaba plays in Senegal

As of this post, Kairaba has played five gigs: one in Thies, two in Mbour, and two in Saly.

We are struggling to find adequate equipment and have experienced everything from broken kick pedals, malfunctioning high-hat clutches, fried 110 volt power supplys, missing jembes and congas, blown speakers; we’ve played without tom-toms, amplifiers, audiences or payment. Three of our shows were basically auditions to get a later gig.

But all our gigs were trumped by a birthday party we played in the street for the 4-year-old daughter of Ablaye, one of Diali’s cousins. A make-shift stage was erected (a torn blue tarp on the sand with a backdrop) and plastic chairs were brought in and set up in a big circle. We rented a sound system which arrived on a horse-and-buggy, but without an adequate mixer. Thin wooden logs were put in the sand to support 2 light bulbs on a wire which ran from the center of the circle to the center pole holding up the tarp backdrop.

While waiting for the mixer, they blasted our CD for everyone to hear. It was extremely loud and children were dancing and chasing each other. Three teenaged women swept the sand with homemade brooms; an older woman set up shop with little bags of peanuts and fruit for sale. We all had a feeling something big was going to happen. We were supposed to start playing at 5 pm but it was actually after 11 pm when everything was finally in place. It was like a mini-stadium with layers of guests and onlookers packed closely so that you didn’t see many bodies, only faces.

While sound check was more or less happening, our driver and right-hand-man Babacar was repairing a broken kick pedal and Jonathan was showing the ‘soundmen’ how to use their own equipment. Diali’s brothers and cousins were entertaining the guests with soruba drumming, a Mandinka style of drumming similar to the Wolof sabar described in the previous post. The drums are shaped and played similarly but the repertoire and feel of the music is different. They are worn around the waist and can be 5 to 7 strong. The lead drummer blows a whistle and plays to the dancers, who suddenly emerge from the crowd, bust a quick move, and disappear as quickly as they came. The soruba drums are decorated with thin strips of sheep skin that symbolize a goat’s goat-tee and descend from the drumhead, hiding the wooden body and swaying with the pulse. Drummers tag out repeatedly so that every time you look up there is someone different playing one of the parts.

Finally when everything was ready, shouts became whispers and the sand that had been kicked up during the soruba session settled back into the ground. The sound from our first song, Kaira, blasted from the speakers and met perfectly the curiosity of everyone there. A few people got up to dance and a few others got up to be closer to their friends to collectively share their thoughts on what was going down. I was a little nervous so I was seeking some sort of sign that what we were doing was good in some way.

And it was. We killed it. After the first song, the thick air of anticipation gave way to cries and screams and dancing and laughing, pointing, singing, clapping; basically an advanced stage of merriment.

Diali talked a lot into the mic about what he was doing in the US, with his wife, with us, with his students… this was his moment. Everyone was quiet and surfing on his eloquence, adding their own from time to time as in some of the more participatory Christian congregations in the States. Then we played our song “Jabu” for almost 30 minutes, with the soruba drummers joining us and creating a deafening battery of polyrhythmic bad-ass-ness. Family members and close friends of Diali seized the mic in succession and spoke about their feelings while the band cooled down to a simmer. “Jabu” is about Diali’s younger sister Jabu and how Diali was wondering: “who’s going to take care of my lovely sister if I move to the United States? I am worried about that.” At the commencement of this song, we made sure to bring up Jabu and embarrass her (and make her a superstar). She had a nice red dress on and a smile that just about made me drop the beat.

Several times the lights suddenly went out and the dance circle would get flooded with people who wanted to leave their seats but were until then too nervous. Then the lights would flicker back on and folks would take off screaming in all directions. There was the timidness of prom, the sacredness of ceremony and tradition, and the ‘anything goes’ attitude of a drunken night of bar hopping; at any moment I could have whispered in your ear: “I have no idea what is going to happen next.” I loved it.

This circle that we created of bright light and music and dancing and love was like a glowing civilization in the clouds – a starburst surrounded by black nothingness, for outside this circle the bustling town of Mbour did not matter and in our experience had vanished. I had seen events like this one on YouTube and in descriptions in dissertations and papers, but I never thought I would be performing at one. I had had misgivings about being a toubab jembefola (foreign jembe player) of debatable intermediate skill level and performing as such in front of young Senegalese hot-shot jembefola who were half my age and twice as good as I’ll ever be. But in this circle, all that drifted away as people showered me with praise that I humbly and quickly tried not to accept but soon gave up. People here are very, very nice.

And I think I can say that it was Kairaba’s most successful performance here yet .


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